Handel, Hendrix & Kahlo with a side of football


Saturday 7th July, 2018

Tom was off with the Ubers to see Ride at Hyde Park so I had a Saturday in London to myself. Bliss.

Having nabbed myself a National Art Pass on a special offer recently (£10 for a 3 month membership) I had built a wish list of the places I wanted to use it. I decided to start with the Handel and Hendrix museum, which is just round the corner from Bond Street. A couple of centuries and a wall kept the men apart in life, but they are now both commemorated in this fine double museum. I started with Handel,  he was first after all. I had no idea he had lived, and indeed died in London until today. With the Hanoverian Kings, it of course made sense for a successful German to come to London at that time. He wrote most of his music here too, and standing in the room he composed in was pretty thrilling. They had some beautiful vintage instruments on display, which is how I discovered how the harpsichord works and that it is more like a guitar (plectrums!) than a piano. There was a small opera recital in the house on the day I visited and so I was accompanied by the gorgeous sounds of baroque opera as I walked round.There is a replica of his bed, the one in which died, in the room in which he drew his final breath. A rather fabulous marble bust of him looks over the room. Having recently discovered a love of Baroque music I really enjoyed this little glimpse into the world of Handel.

A narrow staircase takes you into what would have been Hendrix’s flat next door. The original staircase he would have used is still visible and even though I couldn’t walk on it, I did have the feeling of walking in Jimi’s footsteps. They use the small space well to tell you about Jimi’s sadly short life, with his jacket (he was tall and broad, I didn’t realise that), record collection, effects peddles and replica guitar. For one glorious moment I was stood between the two museums with the sound of a Handel opera in one ear and Purple Haze in the other. As a blend it was fabulous. As was the reconstruction of Hendrix’s bedroom. Many photographs and interviews took place in the room, and the Trust had help from Kathy Etchinham (who was Jimi’s girlfriend) they have managed a very authentic recapturing. My initial reaction was “wow” the colours and fabrics strike you as pretty psychedelic even now. The bed is low, the ashtrays are full and the detail is superb. The mirror is original and you are invited to look at your reflection in the same way he would have done. That’s quite charged.

As a child whose parents smoked B&H, stubbing them out in sea shell ashtrays, I can say I felt transported right back. It is a perfect little time capsule of 1968. The ha’penny taped to the arm of the record deck. The fan knitted teddy bear Jimi kept for years. The beautiful Victorian shall hung above the bed. It all came together to give a real feel for what it would have been like to visit there at the time. While the colour and fabric were pretty shocking, it was also wonderfully domestic and ordinary. You could see Jimi and Kathy sitting in the low bed, drinking tea, having a fag and watching TV, just like any other young couple. Some places give off a special aura or glow and just make you feel things.

What was the spare room (where among others, George Harrison spent the night on the sofa) next door, showcased Jimi’s record collection and guitar. I gazed out of the window, thinking about how many of the great, good and notorious would have looked at the same view.

I took another, slow look round both places, I almost didn’t want to leave. I picked up a memento, a red guitar necklace and headed out into the sweltering heat.

My next stop was to be the allergy and free from food fayre at Olympia. As a coeliac the chance to sample gluten free foods and pick up some supplies is always welcome, and the ticket was free and more crucially, they were showing the England game on a big screen. Gluten free chilli in my belly, christmas pudding and cookies in my bag, I made my way into the side hall where the football was on. It was quite surreal on a bright sunny day to be in a darkened room. Victorian grandeur mingling with modern technology (wi-fi projector and laptop, huge screen).

The crowd was great, really mixed, lots of other women, kids of all ages, people of all colours and faiths surrounded me. Even some brave Swede’s who were sat behind me. We shook hands before kick off, it felt like the sporting thing to do. And what Gareth Southgate would have wanted. The elderly Chinese woman sat next to me (with her Anglo Indian husband) was as excited as me, despite telling me “I don’t usually watch the football, but this team and this World Cup!” When the first goal went in, the place erupted. I’ve never really watched football like this, en mass, and I loved it. It was tense, with none of daring to dream that we could win, but we did. England’s men would be in their first World Cup semi final in forever. It was such a feeling of relief and joy. Enormous credit to the young team and the set up around them, they have restored many of our faith in the men’s game.

What to do with myself next?! Other than eat more gluten free things of course. I felt I’d earned the brownie with the stress of the game.

I had a ticket for the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A, but that wasn’t until 8.15pm so I thought I’d head over to Trafalgar Square to see the Millicent Fawcett statue. Last time I tried to get there 10,000 anti Brexit marchers had gotten in my way! This time I had to contend with the ends of Pride and a lot of happy, glittery people instead 🙂 I arranged to meet up with Mark off twitter, who was quite merry from watching the game in a pub, and we had a good natter in the sunshine next to the statue. I asked him to take a picture of me with it, got into Rosie The Riveter pose and only later realised he hadn’t got the statue in the shot! Too many beers I suspect. I’ll have to go back another time. I liked the statue very much, Gillian Wearing is a great artist and she has done a bang up job. The texture in the cloth, the band of photos of other suffrage campaigners in the plinth, the hands – fabulous, strong and striking. Courage calls to courage everywhere held directly opposite the Palace of Westminster. Yes, sisters, yes.

I bade farewell to Mark and headed over to the V&A. This has always been one of my favourite London museums, it is vast, eclectic and interesting. To access the exhibition at this late time, when the rest of the place is closed, involves the staff security hut and corridor. It felt a but like sneaking in, which sort of added to the thrill of the whole event.

I have always loved Frida Kahlo’s art. It speaks to me. Directly. Like an electric charge to the heart. Something in her work has always touched me, moved me, made me feel things very deeply. The first time I saw her work I knew very little about her life. I didn’t need to to have that direct connection, her art cuts into the very soul of me. Then I did learn about her life. And oh boy did that connection make sense. Another woman who had known deep, shaming, female pain, deep, deep into her bones. No wonder I felt so strongly as a reaction to her work. I understood her, she understood me. She explained and depicted the strength, courage and downright determination needed just to make it through the day. She did it with beauty, with such love and tenderness, that I find it impossible not to stare at her paintings for interminably long periods of time.

There was a major exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s art in London in 2005, at a time when I was ill, wracked in pain and not working. I went and still occasionally look through the gallery catalogue. Then I did not have my son, and did not think I ever would. So the paintings depicting Frida’s infertility and loss affected me profoundly. I spent so long in the exhibition, looking and looking, moving in and out of the paintings eyelines, that security had to ask me to leave as they were closing. At 10pm.

A great deal of Frida’s art is in private hands, or held in collections in Mexico (quite rightly) or the US, so when one gets the opportunity to see it closer to home, one takes it. This current exhibition at the V&A is of her whole life, including clothing, personal effects, photographs of Frida as well as her art. It is the first time much of this has been seen outside of Mexico, where it was fairly recently rediscovered. Her husband had her rooms sealed after her death and everything lay there undisturbed for decades. It is now in the public domain.

Once you are in the room containing Frida’s personal things, her shoes, plaster casts, medicine bottles, lipstick, nail polishes and so on, things get emotional. At least they did for me. Her little feet, they were so tiny. Just like mine. The shoes, specially shaped and stacked on account of her childhood polio, yet so very beautiful, the red velvet continuing to shine. If they had not been behind glass I may not have been to stop myself from stroking the fabric. They were ostentatious, embroidered and embellished. I want a pair. Next to them, the false leg, worn later in life, after an amputation. What could have been ghoulish or macabre seemed somehow triumphant. Frida hid her legs beneath the long skirts all her life, hiding those pretty shoes as a personal reminder to herself of her femininity. Now they are out for all of us to admire.

The plaster casts and spinal braces felt initially too intrusive, too personal, too open and raw in their pain to be shared. Spinal pain, nerve pain and spinal surgery are fuckers. It is no wonder Frida had so many prescription medicines and was dependent on painkillers. That she was able to create so much amazing, incredible art from her bed simply elevates her talent to another level. As someone who has known chronic and intractable pain I could only weep for the torment Frida endured and want to stroke her face and hold her body in recognition. Kindred spirits and souls can be found across time, space, continents, even death, in art.

The cosmetics were a joyous release, bright, bold lips and nails such a part of Frida’s look. That defiance again. That fight. That fire. My gosh she was an incredible woman.

In the final room, Frida’s clothes. Beautiful, bright, Mexican clothes. They were partly practical, the skirts hid her legs, the tops easy to put on and off over casts and braces, yet Frida took those factors (which could be seen as limiting) and made them spectacular, full of colour and pride in her Mexican heritage. Her jewelery was incredible, some made from Aztec stones thousands of years old. There was a necklace, silver, made up of tiny arms and legs all marching and waving, a wonderful slice of humour. In this room also a number of her paintings. Two of which I could take my eyes off. Both self portraits, one with monkeys, one almost a funeral cortege. I spent a long time in this room. Watching others look or pass by, standing close, moving further away, bobbing left and right, drinking in each painting slowly over and over.

Eye contact is a hard thing for me (I’ve learnt to look at noses, the space between eyes, eyebrows, lips so that you think I’m looking at you but I’m not) it is so intense it can actually hurt. When I do make that connection with someone (that I love and trust, generally) it is very intense and powerful. So for me to stand for minutes at a time, looking directly into Frida’s painted eyes, is revealing, tense, intense, emotional and overwhelming. Yet I am unable to look away. Something draws me closer, holds me. I find Frida Kahlo’s art spellbinding. It sends shivers down my spine and goosebumps up my arms. I feel such a deep sense of connection and belonging with her art. After some time with these works I went back to the start of the exhibition and began all over again. I couldn’t let go, I couldn’t leave. I wanted, no needed, more time with Frida. I found myself staring at the shoes again. Looking at the medicine bottles, working out which ones I had used myself. Everything was so beautifully curated and displayed that they were almost works of art themselves. I started to wonder if she were alive now, whether Frida would be doing this herself. Modern art, telling her life in another artistic way. I concluded that she may well, her art was always about revealing herself.

I returned to self portrait with monkeys and self portrait 1948 and wept in front of them both. The latter, displayed as it was at the end of the exhibition, next to the costume that was worn in it, with the face ruff/veil all round, like a crown of flowers on a death mask, made me cry for the tragically young age at which Frida died. 47. Only 6 years older than I am now. How that was a blessed relief, in a way, from a physical body wracked with pain, to a spiritual body that she very much believed in. I did not feel this was the end I wanted, nor that my relationship with Frida’s art deserved. I am still very much alive, hopefully with more than 6 years left. I wanted to leave with a sense of life, of joy, not mourning. Self portrait with monkeys 1943 would be my last and lasting image I decided. I took some final, long, lingering looks at the strength and audacity displayed in that face, closed my eyes and found the exit.

On my way out I realised why Frida Kahlo’s art has such a profound and lasting impact on me. She wanted to be seen. A disabled woman of colour. She wanted to be seen. Society and culture hide and render invisible women, people of colour and disabled people. Frida Kahlo was all 3. She wanted to be seen. She wanted to roar and rage her way out of the pain and the way others chose to not see her. She wanted to give them no choice but to look at her and hear her voice. And how she did. I hear her, I see her and in her I see parts of myself reflected, I see and feel understanding, acceptance and love. That is redemptive. And rare. And beautiful. It is powerful and heady stuff. When I look at Frida Kahlo’s paintings I see her. And she sees me. I see myself echoed in the paint, I see aspects of my life mattering, I see representations of female pain, anguish, fear and anger. I understand myself more. I feel. I feel so strongly and so powerfully that I am renewed.

I hope one day to be able to stand in situ with her work again, there really is no substitute for the real thing. As much as the exhibition catalogues and prints try to capture, there is no replication of the way it feels to stand and marvel at a painting or sculpture. Art is about explaining and exploring the human condition, it shows us who we are and what we can be. It transcends time and space, we can share in the emotions of artists dead for centuries, or ones who live round the corner. We can connect deeply to each other and ourselves in art.

Frida Kahlo’s art has always spoken to me. It continues to do so.